Karl Liebknecht
The Future Belongs to the People


by Walter E. Weyl

THE philosophy of Karl Liebknecht as revealed in these pages leaves but a narrow ledge for heroes to stand on. To him the significant thing in history is, and has always been, the stirring of the masses of men at the bottom, their unconscious writhings, their awakenings, their conscious struggles and finally their gigantic, fearsome upthrust, which overturns all the little groups of clever men who have lived by holding these masses down. In these conflicts, kings, priests, leaders, heroes count for no more than flags or flying pennants. All great leaders, Caesar, Mahomet, Luther, Napoleon, are instruments of popular movements, or at best manuscripts upon which the messages of their class and age have been written.

To Liebknecht all that Carlyle has said about heroes is contrary to ideology and inversion of the truth. "As I take it," writes Carlyle, "Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked there. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing and accomplished in the world are properly the outward material result, the practical realization and embodiment of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world: the soul of the whole world's history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these."

Look at what is happening in Germany to-day and test, as best we may, these two confronting theories concerning the influence of great men upon history. As I write Germany is in the throes of revolution. The immensely powerful Hohenzollern monarchy has fallen, the brave, stubborn, modernwitted, money-bolstered aristocracy is shattered, and a proscribed poor man, Karl Liebknecht, is loudly acclaimed. Was it one man, a Foch, a Wilson, a Lenin or a Liebknecht that overturned this mighty structure, or was it the movement of a hundred million men and women, armed and unarmed, on the battle-field and in the factory, in France and England and Russia and Germany? What could Liebknecht alone have done with all his ringing eloquence and all his superb, I almost said, sublime heroism? Clearly we must rule Carlyle out of the controversy and agree with Liebknecht, the Socialist, that Liebknecht, the hero, had little to do with this vast subversion.

Yet, as Carlyle says, "One comfort is, that Great Men, taken up in any way, are profitable company. We cannot look, however imperfectly, upon any great man, without gaining something by him."

At this safe distance no one could be more "profitable company" than Karl Liebknecht as he stands up boldly against all that is powerful, respectable and formidable in Germany and challenges it at the utter risk of life and reputation. Such courage as his is almost inconceivable; for us poor conforming or at best feebly protesting little people it is quite impossible. To die among thousands, even to die alone, if you think you hear the plaudits of your nation or your class, is a thing many of us have learned to do, but to stand up against a vindictive irrational war spirit, such as ruled Germany, to stand up alone, to be contemned not only by your enemies but by those who called themselves your comrades and friends, to be met by polite derision and by actual threats of violence, to be called a madman, to be called a traitor, to be misunderstood and doubted; to be met in occasional moments of dejection even by doubts in your own mind, and still to hold your own bravely and with cool passion, day after day and day after day, in circumstances growing daily more difficult, and finally to go to prison gladly, triumphantly – that is courage surpassing the courage of the rest of us. It is easier to die even by torture than to persist in this opposition to forces physical and mental not only confronting but surrounding and even permeating us.

We have agreed with Liebknecht that great events are not the doings of great men but merely the large theater in which these great men play their little parts. And yet, does not the hero, subordinate as he is to the wider movement of the play, exert a somewhat stronger influence than many followers of Marx seem willing to admit? Masses of men are moved to vital historic decisions in part by economic motives, but these motives must first be converted into emotion, and the hero, however his own actions are motived, is one of the vital factors producing that emotion. We shall perhaps never know to what extent the present rising of the German people against their once invincible rulers was occasioned, though not caused, by their vision of Karl Liebknecht, standing there alone against all the judges, rulers, legislators and respectables of Germany, and even against his fellow socialists. The heroism of Liebknecht was at least a point and center of coalescence.

The course of events has vindicated Karl Liebknecht. But it might well have been otherwise. Had Germany won the war and established a clanging pax Germanica through the ruin of Europe, Liebknecht's heroism might never have been recognized. He might have rusted in prison and been released to obscurity and thereafter lived a futile life derided as a blind fanatic. The force of circumstances, the obscure action of the hundreds of millions, rescued Liebknecht and raised him to the highest pinnacle of heroism. It stamped upon our minds for all time the picture of this brave man standing alone surrounded by cruel, confidently smiling foes.

I said "alone." Yet this is not fair to a very small group of German minority socialists, who stood by Liebknecht and by whom Liebknecht stood. Among them were Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring, Hugo Haase, George Ledebour, and others, to whom, were real heroism always decorated, would be given a higher order of "Pour le Mérite." But among all these Karl Liebknecht stands preëminent.

"And for all that mind you," concludes the French soldier Bertrand, in "Under Fire," "there is one figure that has risen above the war and will blaze with the beauty and strength of his courage."

Barbusse continues: "I listened leaning on a stick towards him, drinking in the voice that came in the twilight silence from the lips that so rarely spoke. He cried with a clear voice, 'Liebknecht.' "


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